Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the thin lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis causes swelling of the meninges, which can result in serious neurological damage and even death if not treated promptly.
While meningitis is more common in infants and young children, adults are also at risk, especially from certain bacterial and viral strains. Understanding the causes of meningitis in adults is important for prevention and prompt treatment.
Some common symptoms of meningitis in adults include:
The symptoms can develop over a couple of days but can also rapidly worsen over a period of hours. Some of the symptoms may resemble the flu early on, so adults should watch for fever along with severe headache or neck stiffness to determine if they may have meningitis. Seeking prompt medical treatment is vital whenever meningitis is suspected.
What Are The Causes Of Meningitis In Adults?
There are several potential causes and types of meningitis that affect adults:
🔹 Bacterial Meningitis
- Neisseria meningitidis – This bacterium is a leading cause of bacterial meningitis outbreaks, especially among young adults living in close quarters such as college dorms. It spreads through respiratory secretions and saliva. There are vaccines available to help prevent infection.
- Streptococcus pneumoniae – This bacteria can cause pneumonia as well as meningitis. Adults with weaker immune systems are at higher risk. Vaccines are also available.
- Listeria monocytogenes – This bacteria can contaminate certain foods like soft cheeses, causing illness in pregnant women and older adults.
- Haemophilus influenza – Now rare due to Hib vaccines, but can affect those with weaker immune systems.
🔹 Viral meningitis
- Enteroviruses – Common in summer and early fall, spread through fecal contamination or respiratory transmission. Usually milder than bacterial forms.
- Herpes simplex virus (HSV) – Caused by the same virus responsible for oral and genital herpes. Can recur.
- Varicella zoster – The virus that causes chickenpox and shingles. Can lead to meningitis in adults, especially the immunocompromised.
- Mumps, measles, and influenza – Viruses that can sometimes spread to the meninges. MMR and flu vaccines help prevent.
🔹 Fungal meningitis
- Cryptococcus – A fungal infection most common in those with weakened immune systems, like AIDS patients. Spread by bird or bat droppings.
- Coccidioides – Fungal spores in the soil of hot, arid regions can be inhaled and infect meninges.
🔹 Parasitic meningitis
- Angiostrongylus cantonensis – Can spread by eating raw snails, slugs, and freshwater prawns contaminated with rat lungworm larvae.
Is Meningitis Contagious? How to Treat It?
Bacterial meningitis is highly contagious and can spread rapidly through coughing, sneezing, or direct contact with an infected person. Fungal, viral, and parasitic meningitis are generally less contagious.
Bacterial meningitis requires prompt treatment with IV antibiotics, along with corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. Viral meningitis may only require rest and fluids. Medications are available for fungal and parasitic meningitis. Anyone with suspected meningitis should be hospitalized immediately to prevent severe complications like brain damage.
Close contacts of people with bacterial meningitis may also need prophylactic antibiotics. Vaccines can help prevent some bacteria that lead to meningitis. Practicing good hygiene like covering coughs and sneezes is important to avoid the spread of infection.
Meningitis poses a serious health risk to adults from various infectious causes. Bacterial meningitis is often severe and contagious, so swift treatment with IV antibiotics and hospitalization is imperative in suspected cases. Vaccines can prevent many types of bacterial meningitis.
While viral meningitis often resolves on its own, the symptoms should not be taken lightly. Seeking prompt medical attention whenever symptoms arise allows for proper diagnosis and treatment. Increased awareness of meningitis and its causes in adults can help prevent transmission and encourage vaccination. Rapid treatment improves outcomes and prevents lasting neurological damage.
A: Diagnostic tests usually include a lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to collect and analyze cerebrospinal fluid from the spinal canal. Imaging tests like CT or MRI scans may also be used to look for signs of infection or inflammation in the brain.
A: Serious long-term effects can include hearing loss, blindness, limb amputation, brain damage, seizures, and neurological disabilities. Prompt treatment helps reduce the risk of permanent damage.
A: Those with weaker immune systems, the elderly, college students living in dorms, pregnant women, and those exposed to contagious individuals or disease outbreaks have higher meningitis risk. Certain medical conditions like head trauma/neurosurgery or an HIV/AIDS diagnosis also increase susceptibility.
A: Yes, without prompt treatment some forms of bacterial meningitis have a high fatality rate of around 50%. However, the availability of antibiotics and improved supportive treatments have reduced the overall mortality risk to below 15% in some regions. Still, it is crucial to seek immediate medical care.
A: Yes, there are several vaccines available that can help prevent meningococcal, pneumococcal, Haemophilus influenzae, and other bacterial meningitis strains in adults. Doctors recommend keeping up with recommended booster immunizations, especially for those at higher risk. The meningitis vaccine is often required for college students living in dorms.